I’d like a plate of inspiration without the struggle, please.

I was in the mood for curling up with an inspirational movie. One problem: literally every inspirational movie I found had components of hardship built in. Did I really have to watch the suffering to get to the good stuff?

There are no hero stories without monsters of one kind or another. There can be no catharsis without angst, uncertainty, inner turmoil. In a story arc that ends in a transcendent, hard-won success, characters will travel a rough road to get there. Glancing at the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, I saw that each of the 46 I’d seen had dramatic components.

So maybe, I thought, a movie wasn’t what I needed. Maybe, I thought, quotes are safer. Quotes can be inspiring without presenting negatives because they don’t require a story arc. Or can they, and don’t they? I headed to a box of quotes I keep on a common shelf, and began to dig.

Marianne Williamson’s inspirational quote, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world” seemed innocent enough. But the ideas of playing small, and embracing the calling to serve others and to have a greater purpose – these create tension, which only resolves if you commit to play bigger.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step” presents strength in the face of underlying hesitation, the unknown, uncertainty of direction. A first step feels brave precisely because we don’t have a vision of the whole staircase.

Many quotes I read leveraged fear behind the words. Some were stated, as in Michael Jordan’s, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try,” or Jack Canfield’s, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” In others, the concept wasn’t stated, but still resided. A Charles Darwin quote I remember from undergrad Anthropology seems to surface every week in someone’s writing, thanks to the constant state of pandemic-related change: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” As it inspires many to get flexible today, the quote embeds the scary prospects of survival of the species itself.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s, “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions” encapsulates the forced abandonment of our former, smaller selves. Do we fear failing to challenge ourselves, or abandoning ourselves in the pursuit of self-realization? Does Eric Thomas’s “Fall in love with the process, and the results will come” harbor a quest for results, for progress or completion we may otherwise be powerless to attain?

I had to face it: There is no transcendence to be found without struggle. It’s not a diner menu favorite that you can order up as you’d like. It’s the endgame of an arduous process. Contentment, while beautiful, doesn’t motivate us to do or feel anything else. Conflict begs resolution. I find some comfort in this. Remembering that one can’t exist without the other inspires perseverance. Perhaps that realization is inspiration enough.

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